Cops cool off in the Haight Ashbury
The cops of the Haight are easing up on street kids slangin’ weed.
Modern day Haight Ashbury has long played cops and robbers with its collection of youthful vagabonds, many of whom sell marijuana on the streets.
Locals and tourists alike are familiar with their siren song — “Got bud? Got green?” — which echoes in the ears of anyone walking on Haight Street between Buena Vista Park and Alvord Lake, a veritable Green Mile of marijuana hawkers plying their wares.
From the beginning, San Francisco police have walked among them, using disguises to trick street dealers into selling to an undercover cop. Plainclothes cops purchase cannabis from a street seller, who is quickly arrested and charged with a felony.
The pattern — buy, bust, repeat — has continued for decades, until recently. Statistics show the cops have recently eased up on busting street dealers.
In a way, it’s a wonder the truce was so long in coming, as the neighborhood’s attitude on weed was an odd contradiction: A neighborhood that enjoyed a thriving tourist trade thanks to its drug-fueled counterculture also urged local cops to arrest the flower children’s spiritual progeny.
As soon as I cross Stanyan onto Haight Street, I hear it. “Green, got green?”
I stop and introduce myself to the would-be cannabis salesman, Rob. He’s tall and broad shouldered, clad in nondescript hoodie and skullcap. As we talk, Rob passes a joint to his friends: a tall, lanky fellow, a girl swinging a hula hoop, and a short man with fidgeting hands.
It’s not accurate to call Rob a “street kid,” since he’s 28. But he knows the street, having sold marijuana here since he was 16. I tell Rob I’m not interested in buying, but he’s game to talk.
The attitude of the Haight today perplexes him, he tells me, because “they want the nostalgic feel, but they don’t want to be in that time, per se.”
It’s easy to see what he means. The street kids fly signs and panhandle on the steps of shops that shoo them away one second and sell tie-dye T-shirts and peace symbol necklaces the next.
The travelers and gutter punks scrounge food from restaurants whose clientele is visiting the Haight for a taste of the long-lost hippie culture, mentions of which are in every guidebook.
Rob tells me he remembers a time when cops would bust him routinely for selling, though he didn’t mention if he had done time. That buy-bust era is now past, he says.
“Yeah, it’s decriminalized these days,” he says. That’s only partially true: Medical marijuana is legal, but street sales are forbidden. Or are they?
Rob says he “rarely” gets busted these days, with a noticeable change sometime in the last year.
And indeed, two big things happened in the last year that have meant a new era of peace for street dealers.
OLD SCHOOL POLICING
The 1970s were a tough time to be a police officer in San Francisco. The decade opened with a pipe bomb exploding in Park Station near Haight Street. The blast killed one cop and wounded nine others. In 1971, a desk sergeant at Ingleside Station was murdered with a shotgun blast.
In all, 12 officers died in the line of duty in the 1970s. One of them was discovered by a young officer who saw the remains of a slain cop — who had been shot in the head — in a patrol car parked on Waller Street.
The experience stuck with Greg Corrales for the rest of his life, as he rose from a rookie cop fresh from Vietnam in 1969 to lead the department’s narcotics squad.
After over 40 years on the force, a tour of duty that included a notorious and unpopular bust of medical marijuana founding father Dennis Peron’s Castro District pot club, Corrales was appointed to a familiar final posting.
In 2012, he took over command of Park Station, which patrols the Haight Ashbury. He was sent there by police Chief Greg Suhr specifically to crack down on street dealers, the Bay Citizen reported at the time.
He did not disappoint.
A snapshot of Park Station police records from Aug. 25, 2013 through Jan.,15, 2014, (notably, slow months when street kids migrate out of the city, advocates told me) show 41 arrests for pot-related incidents around Haight. Over a dozen of these were noted in reports as buy-busts, a treasured old-school tactic that was on its way out elsewhere in the city.
But not in the Haight, where Corrales celebrated the stings in his inimitable style.
“Pursuant to their commitment to rid the Park Police District of the scourge of drug dealing, members of the PACT plainclothes unit established a Degradation of our Youth with Drugs Abatement Operation,” went a typical Corrales entry in the Park Station newsletter. “Officer Ruetti purchased marijuana from a pitiless purveyor of pot who was then arrested … Further investigation revealed that the deplorable dope dealer was in possession of a quantity of The Weed with the Roots in Hell.”
Corrales was a true believer. But even the faithful must rest. After almost 45 years on the force, Corrales retired in June 2014.
While the changing of the guard went unremarked on the streets, the effect was immediate.
POLICE AND GREENS
His replacement, Capt. Raj Vaswani, writes his station newsletter matter-of-factly, devoid of much of Corrales’ noteworthy color. And matter-of-factly, between Aug. 25, 2014 and Jan. 15, 2015, there were no identified buy-bust operations.
During that nearly five-month stretch, there were a total of 14 arrests for “narcotics sales,” which could mean methamphetamine, oxy, or other less-friendly drugs.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi says this limited snapshot revealing a drop in buy-busts is in line with his office’s overall caseload. “We used to get quite a few cases from the Haight, mostly marijuana cases,” he said. But no longer.
The second reason for the decline in busts may be a matter of economics.
Chief Suhr tells SF Evergreen the more violent drug sellers (though not all of them are violent) have more lucrative enterprises to pursue.
“What happened with the advent of the new [smartphones], is a lot of our folks in the street drug trade have now gone to the stealing of electronics,” Suhr tells SF Evergreen. In Corrales’ day, Suhr says, “a lot of the violence in San Francisco was between drug dealers and in open air drug markets.”
The broader tale in the city then is this: Pot busts have plummeted.
About 300 people a year were arrested for marijuana in San Francisco in 2011 and 2012, a decrease of about 75 percent from 2010 — and some of those felonies were for cannabis cultivation.
Suhr says as the more violence-prone drug dealers left the business, the cops merely shifted priorities to snag smartphone snatchers.
The Haight sellers were rarely violent, but they benefited from the decrease in cop-led pot busts nonetheless: The more peaceable street kid weed-sellers are now left with the keys to the kingdom.
Now, they sell in the Haight (mostly, but not entirely) in peace.
And all that is fine by Rob. When I’m done winding all of that by him, he nods, but whether the cops pop pot dealers or not, he says, the Haight is where he’ll hang.
“We just smoke the good herb, and listen to music,” Rob says.
And thanks to the neighborhood’s lasting reputation, there’s no shortage of customers.
Photo by Mike Koozmin